Ever been to a bookstore and wander through the cookbook section? There are literally 100s of titles (even more online), with more published every week. Ever wonder if the authors make money? The answer is most likely don’t, and the reasons are simple. Publishing a book costs money. Books have to be edited, printed, marketed, and distributed. So paying $35 for a hardcover cookbook is a bargain. One cookbook shop owner once told me that authors make their money off speaking engagements, demos, etc. Makes sense.
Now writing a textbook is slightly different, as the audience for the book is more constrained. They are also often overpriced, and exist in a captive market, i.e. students often *have* to buy them, and hence both publishers and university bookshops make $$$, and authors make very little. Of course many students who buy a $100 textbook think the author is making a fortune off the books. The opposite is often true. Most authors get a royalty of roughly 10% off the wholesale price of the book. How does this work, well I’ll explain.
A few years ago I wrote a textbook on programming for my introductory class, “Confessions of a Coding Monkey“. It was meant to provide an easy to understand guide to programming, with a whole series of case studies. It was fun to write. However I didn’t quite understand the intricacies of publishing when it came to pricing the book. The book sold at the campus bookstore for C$110. The whole price was somewhere around C$60. So the bookstore made $50, for basically having a book sit on a shelf. Amazing right? My royalty was 10%, so C$6 per book. So:
Now, I get that publishing costs money. But the author gets basically 5% of the price the student pays. Then of course you have to pay taxes, and it’s worse if your publisher is in the US. So if you are lucky, of that C$6 you end up with $C3. Barely enough for a coffee. Now you may end up selling thousands of books. Let’s say you’re lucky and you sell 3000 copies over a five year period. That means you likely make $9,000 after tax. How much effort did it take to write? Six months of time? A year? Probably not enough to retire on. You do the math on how much the publisher makes, and the bookstore. Oh, and my book was printed as a paperback in black-and-white, and I did all the illustrations (bar the cover).
People more often than not write books for the love of it. Sure, some authors do make money. Chef Jamie Oliver has over 20 books to his credit, and is hugely successful. His 30-Minute Meals book sold in excess of 1.5 million copies. Having experienced the whole process of publishing with a large publisher, I would never do it again – I’m planning on self-publishing the book I am currently working on (a hybrid book on digital photography/image processing), and offering it as inexpensively as possible to everyone, probably through something like Blurb.
P.S. Interested in more info? Read this article, Everything You Wanted to Know About Book Sales (But Were Afraid to Ask).
P.P.S. From what I gather, textbook authors who *do* make money are those who write books in fields like math, where their textbooks that are widely used, and have a super amount of editions.